Independent projects in large enrollment labs?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from John DeLong of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the first in a planned series of three. Thanks for taking the time John!


A fresh take on canned labs

Introductory science classes often have high enrollment, and so their associated labs must accommodate high student throughput. Not surprisingly, all of the introductory science labs I have taken and taught in my academic career have used canned labs. Students conduct activities or experiments with known outcomes, and by going through the activity and conducting an analysis, students ‘discover’ something we want them to know. As an instructor for the 200-level Ecology and Evolution class at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln for the last five years, I have tried to make sure our canned labs work reliably and generate the expected outcomes. Although there are two partially inquiry-based labs, the lab is still mostly canned. Most of the labs work, and the course has followed this format for many years.

About a year ago, however, we had a reliable lab go bad. Given our schedule, we needed the students to complete their assignments and move on. But asking students to do this had a profound effect on me. I felt as though I were completely lying to the students about how science works. Science does not follow the mantra of try something, fail, do something else. It follows a try something, fail, trouble shoot, try again mantra (at least up to a point). I felt that in addition to failing to teach the expected content, we gave students a false picture of how to do science and made the whole exercise rather pointless.

Bee enter bonnet

At this point, I had the crushing realization that maybe I have been teaching labs all wrong. Lecture is where we teach and learn content. Lab should be where we teach and learn process. We were mixing the two and failing to provide students with an authentic view of the scientific process. I began talking this problem up to anyone who would listen and planning a totally independent-projects based alternative lab. I got support from everyone I talked with – students, colleagues, and importantly, my department chair – and so this semester I am rolling out an independent-projects based lab for the Ecology and Evolution class. No canned labs. No recipes. For 108 students. With some students working in pairs, I am guessing we will have about 75 student-led, inquiry-based projects going at once. I am actually slightly worried about pulling this off, but everyone around me is so positive, I am tempted to think it will work.

Since I am bound to learn some hard lessons about trying to support so many independent projects at one time for mostly sophomore students who have always been told what to do in lab, I thought I would summarize the experience in a three-part blog. This first entry is being written in the first week of lab, before I’ve learned any hard lessons. The second entry will be during our spring break, and I will post one more at the end of the semester. I will try to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and what I failed to anticipate.

What exactly are we doing?

The lab is broken into three sections: 1) sampling and statistics (3 weeks), 2) mini-projects (3 weeks), and 3) independent projects (8 weeks). Each activity will require the students to decide what to sample, what questions to ask, and how to do it. Even for learning how to do descriptive statistics, the students will go outside, wander around, pick a population of plants (it’s winter, so it’ll be stems, seeds, etc.) and figure out how to sample it. We have some stats we want them to learn how to run, but they will do it using the data they choose to collect. In the mini and independent projects, they will formulate a hypothesis and test it. The mini-project will be just that – mini and not too concerned with biological concepts. The independent project will focus on something biologically interesting but doable. The bar for ‘interesting’ is that they use some content from lecture to motivate their hypothesis. They have 8 weeks, so they have time to try something, fail, trouble shoot, and try again. They will present their projects to their sections and write a scientific paper.

Grading this thing

Grades are forefront in students’ minds, so we do need to grade in a way that doesn’t cause undue stress. I think getting this right is key to getting student buy-in for the new lab approach. In this lab, the grades will reflect student willingness to engage in the scientific process. A portion of the grade will come from achieving benchmarks. For example, when the TA says a student has proposed an interesting hypothesis, they have earned the ‘hypothesis’ points and, regardless of how the rest of the project goes, they won’t lose them. I hope this frees the students to focus on the process and not worry about their grades so much. Finally, students will not be expected to write a well-thought out scientific paper on their first attempt. Instead, they will revise their papers based on TA feedback, and the thoroughness of their revision will determine the grade on the paper.

The end result

Will this approach be better than what we did before? I think so. I plan to conduct some exit interviews to document student perceptions. If all goes well, at the end of this, students will come out the other side with an authentic scientific experience, a more positive view of science, and a good foundation for whatever comes next.

14 thoughts on “Independent projects in large enrollment labs?

  1. This is an excellent proposal for teaching science, especially for those who have gone through “canned labs” for most of their pre-undergraduate schooling years. As someone who changed their art history major to environmental science (after getting over an unfounded fear of chemistry classes), this seems like it will be a better way to engage with potential scientists who are finally allowed to use their innate curiosity and creativity, instead of being worried that their lab work won’t achieve a specified outcome. Really looking forward to hearing how this progresses throughout the semester and what the final results are. I hope it’s a group of confident young scientists!

  2. This is an excellent project and I’m really looking forward to this series of posts! I’m curious what ideas you and others have for helping guide students toward interesting but feasible questions. I’m defining interesting here as being relevant to course topics and having answers that aren’t totally obvious (at least to the target population of the course). I’ve found this to be a challenge in my own teaching and can require a lot of personal attention, so I’m also wondering about the practical aspects of how to manage doing that for around 75 projects in a semester.

    • One way to cut the task down to size is have students work in teams. Our intro ecology class has students do independent projects (hopefully the instructor will stop by this thread to say more about that…), and we have >200 students in the class. But the students do their projects in teams of 4, if memory serves.

      Going to teams of course raises new issues (e.g., ensuring as far as possible that nobody leaves all the work to their teammates). There are various strategies for mitigating the downsides of team-based projects (e.g., team contracts); not sure which ones our intro ecology course implements.

      • The question of teams is one we wrestled with a lot. We settled on allowing pairs but not larger groups. There are inevitably freeloaders in larger groups, and students who actually contribute to their group really resent those who don’t. Freeloading would even more strongly allow students to bypass the learning opportunities of this lab, where the learning is centered on doing. Our rule is ‘scale up to pair up’, so students in pairs will still each have to contribute.

      • We deal with freeloaders in teams of 4 or more by having team contracts and by making part of the mark depend on teammates’ evals of each other.

    • Yes, me too! These conversations about what to do will be very interesting. How much do we suggest things? How much to we nudge? I don’t know yet, but at least at some level, students will have to envision the time and workload of their proposed projects to identify reasonable boundaries.

  3. I had an experience like this–of project/inquiry-based labs–as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire. I’ve summarized it below because I think it was such a great educational experience, and fits with the theme of the original post. In addition to learning about the process of science, this also emphasizes writing and oral communication skills.

    At the time, introductory biology was a three course sequence: Ecology & Evolution (BIO 110), Cell & Molecular biology (BIO 111), and Plant and Animal form and function (BIO 211). Enrollment in these courses was between maybe 160 and 80 students. Bio 111 had the standard canned labs. Some of them were neat, but others were pretty uninspiring. In contrast, the entire semester of Bio 110 labs was allocated among three different projects, which students worked on in small groups (2-4 students): (1) Measuring average tree density and sizes in adjacent woodlands in or above a floodplain, then learning how to use t-tests to compare the two areas; (2) Taking paired measurements of galled and gall-less Solidago plants; to look at potential differences in growth or habit; (3) measuring and comparing macroinvertebrate diversity in different streams within a ~10 mile radius of campus. Each lab would take place over several weeks, with one day of data collection in the field, and a couple days of data analysis/writing. The first lab was pretty focused/directed in terms of the study question and analysis questions and method– remember for many students this was their first semester of college biology– but later labs there was more flexibility to develop study questions and decide what comparisons you wanted to make in your analysis. Throughout the three labs, the writing expectations increased–for the first lab we were taught how to write Methods and Results in scientific format, but then for later labs we were expected to include an Introduction and Discussion too.

    In 211, about 60% of the labs were standard week-by-week activities, but then for the last portion of class, students were divided into groups of four and worked to design their own experiment looking at either plant mineral nutrition (by growing hydroponic corn or tomatoes), or Daphnia physiology. Within the study system, the parameters were pretty open-ended, and so we were responsible for experimental design, maintenance/execution, and analysis. This project culminated in both a written report, as well as a 10 minute presentation to the class.

    Personally, this really gave me the skills for succeeding in a student-faculty research collaboration, which eventually resulted in a first author publication. I also found it much more enjoyable and stimulating than week-by-week activities, and I imagine the flexibility could also be well suited for students of differing abilities (i.e. it gives stronger students an opportunity to take more independence). I would hope for other students it gave them a better understanding of the process of science and improved communication skills that would serve them well whatever their future path. Today, I think of ways to incorporate similar activities and pedagogical techniques into my own teaching and course design.

    In spite of the many benefits to having labs like this, they are costly in terms of staff time and energy. Teaching and assessing writing is time consuming and takes a lot of effort to do properly. Unfortunately, with the dismantling of the UW system over the last 7 years, the Biology department only has about 60% of the faculty and academic staff it did when I was a student (no new hires until this semester, but many retirements/attrition). Consequently, the intro sequence has been downsized into two courses, and lab sections dropped from many courses.

    • It sounds like your 110 labs did a great job of getting you engaged in science. I hope we can have the same kind of impact for our students. It’s encouraging that some aspects of these successful labs are things we are trying, such as the ramping up of writing tasks. Hopefully that will work in these labs as well.
      We’ve pulled back farther, I think, on the menu of systems and questions, such that students really have to decide what to do. I hope that doesn’t lead to too much inaction, especially since starting this in January, as opposed to August, means there isn’t that much active nature students can look at to get inspired. We’ve given them plenty of time to do it, but the trade-off is that they might have to start their project before their favorite ideas in the lecture have come up!

  4. One note on grading (and metacognition) – we have been creating experimental labs based on the Com Gen model created at Bellevue college. In this model, one of the graded aspects is a student self evaluation. We have them evaluate their own data collection, notes and notebook entries. Then we grade both the self assessment as well as the work. Thus, students who can tell me that their notebooks are not great, get good self assessment grades, and OK notebook grades…then the students have taken a little more responsibility for the quality of their own work. In some was it makes students think about the meta-idea of what they are learning. I would be happy to share any of this with you if you are interested

    • I am only now hearing about self-assessment approaches in grading. It sounds like it really provokes the students to think about what they learned, which intuitively sounds like it should cement things well. I haven’t a clue how to ‘grade’ the self-assessments, though.

      Our current plan, as laid out by the students, is to provide feedback and have them turn in revisions. This does represent a lot of work, but perhaps less than what we used to do.

  5. We’ve been running enquiry-based labs for large student cohorts for many years now. They were set up by one of our former colleagues, Chris Barnard, who sadly passed away. He literally wrote the book about them though, which has since been updated in several new editions but remains true to his original vision. The book is called ‘Asking Questions in Biology’:

    Good luck, and if you want to share experiences then get in touch!

  6. Pingback: Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part II | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part III: how it went and what we’d do differently | Dynamic Ecology

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